City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'
Alejandrina Cabrera answers questions about her ability to speak English in Yuma County Court.
January 30th, 2012
01:11 PM ET

City council hopeful: 'My English is good enough'

When a judge ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera’s name couldn’t be on the ballot for City Council in San Luis, Arizona, because she couldn’t speak English well enough, it was not only a blow to her, but to her fellow citizens, Cabrera told CNN.

“When he took my right to be on the ballot he took away the right of the people who want to vote for me,” Cabrera said in an interview conducted in Spanish with CNN en Español.

A battle over Cabrera's run for office began when Juan Carlos Escamilla, the mayor of San Luis, said he was concerned that Cabrera might not have the proper grasp of the language for the job. Escamilla filed a lawsuit in December that asked a court to determine whether Cabrera's skills qualified her under state law to run for the council seat.

The fight began as a purely political one, with opponents seeking to block her from running for office after she tried to recall Escamilla from office twice, according to The New York Times. But it has turned into a firestorm in a town where many constituents have the same grasp of English as Cabrera. Those questions, and the political fight they stirred, led to a court hearing to determine whether Cabrera spoke English well enough to be able to run for office. The ruling was that she did not.

The issues at the center of this debate: Just how much English must you understand to run for a political office? And what does it mean to be proficient?

According to a judge, you need to know more English than Cabrera was able to demonstrate.

But by Cabrera's account, she's fluent enough to serve her community, and she isn't running for national office.

“I think my English is good enough to hold public office in San Luis, Arizona,” she told CNN.

“I am not going to help (at the White House)," she added. "I will be helping here.”

When she said her English is good enough for San Luis, she brings up a point that’s been a large part of the debate about her language skills.

In San Luis, 87% of residents speak a language other than English in their home and 98.7% are of Hispanic origin, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.  Most of the people there, by all accounts, speak in English and in Spanish. In the comfort of communal settings, they'll speak the way they're most comfortable.

Which may be why, when CNN en Español asked if she would conduct the interview in English, her lawyer instructed her to speak only in Spanish.

Instead of the confident, strong way she speaks in Spanish to the residents of San Luis, Cabrera speaks a bit more slowly, and perhaps with a bit less conviction, when she switches to English. That's something she admits, but she says that she can communicate at the level she needs to in English, given where she lives. She grades her English proficiency at a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10.

“It is true my English is not fluid, I am a very honest so I can tell you I’m not fluid in English, but I do understand it. I can read a a letter. I can read a book,” Cabrera said. “Right now I have a private tutor helping me improve my English.”

While she’s doing that, Cabrera still feels her language skills are where they need to be.

“From my point of view, it would be more helpful to have someone who speaks Spanish (in San Luis),” she said.

Escamilla, the mayor who began the fight over Cabrera’s skills, notes that many of the other council members are also Hispanic but they are truly bilingual.

“With all due respect for Ms. Cabrera, I think she is a good person, but her understanding in English is not good enough. She struggles to speak it, and she doesn’t understand it,” he said. “All our meetings are in English.”

During the court hearing on the issue, Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson made the ruling after testimony from linguistics experts and Cabrera's own testimony, where she answered questions and read a few documents.

Cabrera, a U.S. citizen who graduated from the bilingual Kofa High School in Yuma, Arizona, was questioned in English on the stand about where she graduated, where she was born and what her name was. She was able to tell her lawyer her name and where she was born, but struggled with what school she had graduated from, according to the Yuma Sun.

Cabrera believes that ruling is stripping her of the her right to run for office. Escamilla believes the court is just enforcing the law.

In 2006, Arizona passed a law that made English the official language of the state. Earlier, in 1910, Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed Arizona to become a state with certain requirements. Among them was one that addressed the English language.

"The ability to read, write, speak, and understand the English language sufficiently well to conduct the duties of the office without aid of an interpreter shall be a necessary qualification for all state officers and members of the state legislature," a section of the act reads.

But Cabrera's lawyers argued in court that her disqualification was unfair and may be unconstitutional, seeing as there is not an actual standard for a specific level of proficiency for a council candidate.

That’s something Escamilla disagrees with vehemently.

“We are not taking Alejandrina’s rights away - we are just following the state law,” he said.

Cabrera believes the mayor and others have taken the issue too far, that she is well-qualified to serve the community she lives in, and that the language testing she was given was at a much higher level than necessary.

“I am not applying for a job with President Obama,” she said. “All I want is to do my job as an activist helping my community.”

Glenn Gimbut, the city attorney for San Luis, says he believes the right decision was made for the people of San Luis.

“The votes of the people who might have voted for her would have been wasted, because they could have voted for someone better prepared to be an elected official,” Gimbut told CNN.

But one resident, Ana Maria Beal, said that someone with Cabrera’s background is exactly the kind of person she’d like to see represent her.

“She is someone who wants to work and worries for our people. That’s the type of person we need up there,” she said. “We don’t want someone who comes from Harvard.”

And that sentiment may be why Cabrera plans to appeal the decision, according to an interview with the Yuma Sun.

“I can't give details about the appeal, but the judge's decision was not just,” Cabrera told the newspaper. “He can't take away my constitutional rights, and if he takes away my rights, he takes away the rights of the community.”

While we’ll have to wait and see what happens with an appeal, one thing is sure: Cabrera’s case has sparked a national debate about whether English should be the official language of the country and also leaves open many questions about the democratic process.

Let us know what you think about Cabrera’s situation and her response to being taken off the ballot in the comments section below.

- Journalist Valeria Fernandez, CNN Español's Gabriela Frias, Fernando del Rincon and Gustavo Valdes contributed to this report.

soundoff (1,720 Responses)
  1. George

    "She was asked, on the witness stand at her hearing, where she went to high school. She was unable to answer. Her later explanation to the Times, did not help matters: "My brain, my mind was white. That was my first time in court." By "white", though, she meant "blank". Both words are blanco in Spanish. And a city council is a formal public setting; if she was terrified by a courtroom into speechlessness, it is hard to imagine success on the city council." The Economist

    January 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • THX

      This and the fact that she couldn't even conduct an interview for this article in English proves her English is only good enough to get her into trouble. She ought to spend a bit more time learning the language of the country she hopes to help run – at least long enough to know why one doesn't tell the world one's "mind was white".

      January 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Jordan

    Whats the big deal? Take some English classes and run in four years or so

    January 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Greg

    What would happen if she was deaf? Given the requirements, an interpreter would not be allowed. Would that be fair?

    January 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • JHL

      yes it would be fair. She wants to be a politican and represent US citizens. Surely it's not asking too much that she speak and understand English. Bi-lingual should mean proficient in English not just Spanish without enough English skills to know where you went to high school. Sheeesh.

      January 30, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Wes

    Sure her English is good enough, for a supporter of the Nation of Aztlan!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lindy

      If SHE thinks her English is that good, she should move to mexico and run for office where few English speaking folks live. Hmm, do you think the mexican govt will vote her in??? NO!

      January 30, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Ron

    So, Will she be called racist, if she can only represent the latino-community? What about the minority-anglo community in her town? Can she represent them, even if she can't hold a conversation with them? I'm all for multi-linguals. However, I do think a multi-lingual must be equally proficient in whatever language they chose to speak.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bill

    So, how did that "bilingual" high school work out for this woman? Yet another way our schools are failing our citizens. One would assume high school would prepare a person for the real world, not least of which should be proficiency in the language of the land-regardless of how often one might speak another language in the privacy of their own home. While I'll agree that speaking Spanish would be beneficial in this area of Arizona, one should have the ability to speak fluently in English to hold public office in the US. The fact that her lawyer advised her to conduct this interview in Spanish is revealing. If her high school had emphasized English more, she would be in a position to run for office.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Chris

    She needs to fully understand the meetings in order to help her community. If the meetings are held strictly in English then she needs to understand them completely. Evidently she cannot understand English well enough to state the school she went to let alone an issue on water, roads, education etc. Where you went to school is a very basic question that most elementary school children can answer. If she does not understand English at an elementary school level what makes you think she will understand an adult level subject and be able to vote accordingly. I think she needs to continue with the tutor and run in a few years.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dee

    Born in the US, graduated from high school in the US and still can't speak English adequately? Apparently neither she, her family, her teachers or her community particulary value English in the life of a US citizen. Interesting. This may cause a problem for the country in the long run.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sarah

      Dee, I will assume then, by your poor use of grammatical structure, that you were 1) born in another country, 2) speak a language other than English, and/or 3) did not graduate from high school. Otherwise, you shouldn't cast stones!

      January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. George

    Expect Valeria Fernandez, Gabriela Frias and Gustavo Valdes to write a fair journalistic piece on a hispanic issue. Hahahahaha!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Sarah

    George Bush could barely put together a coherent and grammatically correct sentence in English and that's his native language.... he wasn't stopped from running for office, heck, he became President!

    January 30, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. VonDoom

    You people know that the first Europeans to colonize the American Continent spoke Spanish right?

    January 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Brian in Toronto

      The Vikings that landed at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland in 1000AD spoke Spanish ? Amazing.

      January 30, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      The first PEOPLE to colonize America were NATIVE AMERICANS. They spoke and still speak Navajo, Cherokee, Comanche, Apache, need I go on???

      January 30, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. The cato the cat in English

    When someone asks "how are you." don't say "I am good"say I am doing well. Remember food tastes good people do well. English only? Thus no NFL or NBA players need apply. How about rappers? What do the mean when rappers say they want a BBW? A big butt women of course. Is text messaging English? What about MS patients? you know slurred speech and all. What's really sad is the fact that it's Lation vs Latino because of a political position. What is this the GOP Romney vs Gingrich?

    January 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. omgdaidiots

    mexicans like her and her supporters are abusers and users. they use the judicial system where everyone has to learn english to make the system work for EVERYONE to get her right to speak spanish only. i thought mexican culture has a logic/rational thinking screw loose, but i've decided it's just a whatever is good for "me" mentality.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Report abuse |
  14. English only

    English is the official language in the state. She is running for public office and it does not matter "her" public speaks the same low level of that state's official language. I can't believe that she went through an American high school and is not fluent. That ought to tell you something. (What's going on in her high school that she could even graduate?) We are not a Spanish speaking nation. No disrespect intended, just fact. I have had to live in two other countries and I had to learn the language there. Here, it's English. Get over it and learn the language, especially if you want to be in public office.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Sherri

    She said that her English is 'not all that good' a quote from the article. She needs to be fluent before she runs for office, any office. This is America. We speak English. And it is a fact that many people start at local government and then DO run for national office, so, yes, she needs to be able to speak English. The fact that she will not do interviews in English tells me loads. She seems unable to speak it or understand it. Is the city council supposed to have an interpreter for her at their meetings? This is silly. She is in America. Learn English or get out. Simple.

    January 30, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
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